G is for . . . Goodbye

From Jane/Sadie/Susannah, who is heading off on retreat in Vermont tomorrow and can’t wait …

Hey, Wicked People. Don’t let the title of this post surprise (or, dare I say, concern) you. I’m not going anywhere, except on the aforementioned retreat. But the mystery world got some sad news last month: the death of beloved mystery author Sue Grafton. That’s the goodbye I’m talking about.

While I never met her in person (I was not at the Crime Bake she attended, and it’s probably just as well because I would have fangirled all over her and embarrassed everyone), I have been deeply influenced by her work. Yes, I have read every single one of her novels, in order. She, along with Diane Mott Davidson, Janet Evanovich, and Rett MacPherson, are the modern authors who inspired me to write a mystery. Not only did these writers get me started toward living my own dream of authorship, they’ve given me countless hours of reading pleasure. How many people you’ve never met can you truthfully say changed your life? And when my first Sadie novel came out (Yarned and Dangerous), it was shelved right next to Sue Grafton’s book X at my Barnes and Noble. I actually cried. I sometimes still tear up when I think about it.

When I heard about her death, my first, very selfish thought, was But What About Z???? Which was followed almost immediately by guilt at my self-centeredness and then empathy for her family. I too have lost more family members than I care to count to lingering illnesses, so believe me, I understand something of what they went through. It didn’t take me long to realize that the family is absolutely right to carry out Sue’s wishes that the alphabet –and the series–now ends at Y. (Although, again, selfishly, I really hoped that she had finished that last manuscript and that it would be released).

Before I got there, though, I did the But Surely exercise. But surely she left notes! But surely she told someone what was going to happen to Kinsey! But surely somebody could finish that novel…

And then, I thought back to another author who left an unfinished manuscript: Elizabeth Peters (a/k/a Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz) . She died while The Painted Queen was in process and it was finished by her friend Joan Hess (who also recently passed). And while Joan, who is a legend in her own right, did a really good job, it just wasn’t the same. And it couldn’t be the same, not ever, because there was only one Elizabeth Peters. Just like there was only one Joan Hess. And one Sue Grafton. And one you, dear reader. So I’m just going to be grateful for what these authors gave me, and stop gluttonously wishing for more.

And now I get the joy of imagining my own ending to the series. I’m certain I know which guy she ended up with (it’s been fairly obvious to me for quite  few books where that was going). I’m less certain, but suspicious, about the fate of Henry, Kinsey’s nonagenarian landlord, and her cousin Anna’s onboard passenger, and whether Kinsey will break down and get some 1990-vintage electronics.

If you haven’t read the series, who are the authors whose work you miss dreadfully? If you have, any predictions about what happened to Kinsey after the events of Y is for Yesterday?

 

 

Holiday Movies–A Love-Hate Relationship

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, wishing you all a very happy, healthy, joyous, and prosperous New Year…

Hello, Wicked People! Has a whole month gone by since we’ve chatted? Well, I’m glad to be back.

Are you a holiday movie junkie? I admit it, I am. Although I have to tell you that there are some classics that I don’t exactly love, even though I know I’m “supposed to.” Nobody throw rocks, but I’m not crazy about White Christmas. Other than the title song, none of the music is particularly good (although the singing is). And some of the songs are downright weird (that scene where Danny Kaye is wearing the French Artiste clothes and doing that very odd dance). The fact that Bing Crosby was over 50 when he did the movie with the 26-year-old Rosemary Clooney always gives me pause. However, I do love Danny Kaye in anything he ever did, and he and Vera-Ellen didn’t have such a big age gap, so I consider this movie sort of a wash.

Another one I’m supposed to love but am kind of iffy on is It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, I know. Jimmy Stewart is adorkable, if a bit overly dramatic in spots, and Donna Reed is beautiful and faithful and loving, and the story makes you understand the Butterfly Effect–I’m not sure what came first, The Butterfly Effect or the movie. Yet there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on about It’s a Wonderful Life, something that makes me (usually) watch it when it’s on, but doesn’t give me the slightest pang of disappointment if I don’t see it, as I didn’t this year. Anybody have any thoughts?

And you may really want to throw rocks at me for this one, but Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is another one I can take or leave. I watch it for nostalgic reasons, as I have fond memories of hot cocoa and real oil-popped, buttered popcorn and watching it every year with my sisters and my parents and later with my own son. But seeing it the last few years I’ve found some aspects of it a little bothersome–and I know it’s because I’m seeing it through a 2017 lens, not the 1964 lens in which it was born. There is bullying and there is nose-shaming–by both adult and child reindeer and even Santa! Only the young bucks can try out for the sleigh team, not the does. Also, there’s an unexplained problem inherent in those Reindeer Games. Santa already has a sleigh team full of magic reindeer. So how are those poor little bucks who are being coached ever going to have any hope of making the team? The futility of it all.

Lest this post be deemed too negative, here are some classic Christmas movies I do love, and I do mind if I miss them: A Christmas Story (and yet, again, this one has some aspects that are not exactly cool when viewed with a 2017 lens). How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the 1966 animated version). A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version–this adaptation has the most wonderfully pathetic Tiny Tim). Christmas Vacation because it makes me laugh every time. And here’s one that I consider a Christmas movie, even though only part of it is set at Christmas–You’ve Got Mail. Honestly, I cry every time Tom Hanks brings Meg Ryan those daisies when she’s sick and you just know that’s when she knows she loves him and he loves her, even though they aren’t ready to admit it yet. Happy Sigh.

What about you? Which Christmas movies do you love? Which ones don’t jingle your sleighbells? 

Regional Traditions and a Giveaway

By Jane/Susannah/Sadie, who’s still not sick of turkey on the last day of November…

Thankful for Our Readers Giveaway: I’m giving away a copy of Yarned and Dangerous, book 1 of the Tangled Web Mysteries. Leave a comment below for a chance to win.

Sunset view from my cabin

I spent this past Thanksgiving, as I have most every Thanksgiving for the last twenty years, in Northern New York State , where I have rustic (don’t get jealous–I mean it when I say rustic) but comfortable cabin on a lake. On Thanksgiving day, my husband, son, and I trek out through the woods to, well, Grandmother’s house. Or at least my son’s grandmother, my mom.

Like most families, we have our traditional foods to go with the turkey (not all of which everyone actually enjoys): winter squash (usually Hubbard), sage dressing, green bean casserole, cranberry relish (click here for a recipe), crumb-topped apple pie, and of course pumpkin pie. I will leave it to you to figure out which thing on this list is almost universally disliked in the family, but which we have every year anyway because that’s the way it’s done.

But there are certain regional delicacies we have at every gathering, not just Thanksgiving: cheese curds and Croghan bologna (pronounce that “cro-gun bull-o-nee,” please). I would venture to say that most every family, and certainly any with roots deeper than three generations, in the North Country also has these items as appetizers before the main meal on special days.

So what’s a cheese curd? The North Country has a lot of cows and a lot of dairy farms, which means we make cheese. The curds are a byproduct of cheesemaking, and have a flavor somewhere between mozzarella and a mild cheddar, depending on what cheese they’re a byproduct of. When fresh, which is really the best way to eat them, these little misshapen lumps squeak when you chew them. They are usually eaten cold, but they can also occasionally be breaded and deep fried, or made into the French-Canadian, becoming-sorta-trendy treat poutine–french fries and cheese curds covered in hot gravy. Although most people don’t make poutine at home. It’s easier to order out.

Curds and Croghan on a Grinch-colored plate

Now, for the Croghan bologna. This is a type of ring bologna–more of a sausage, really–which has been manufactured in the tiny town of Croghan, NY at the Croghan Meat Market (click here for more information and for photos) for more than a hundred years. The recipe, which came with the market’s founder, Fred Hunziker, from Switzerland, is a closely guarded secret. This is always eaten cold, sliced into rounds about a quarter of an inch thick, sometimes on a cracker (it fits perfectly on a Ritz), or sometimes topped with a cheese curd or a bit of mustard. I suppose some people might heat it up for breakfast, or make it into a sandwich, but in general that’s a no-no.

If it’s Grade B, it’s for me!

The breakfast of choice for the day after Thanksgiving, or Christmas or Easter morning, is pancakes with local maple syrup. In the North Country, most of us like the dark syrup rather than the lighter, more-desirable-other-places amber. I don’t know that I have a particularly discriminating palate, but I can tell the difference between North Country syrup and Vermont. Sorry, Vermont, but I likes what I knows, and my syrup of choice will always be from New York.

For a chance to win a copy of YARNED AND DANGEROUS, leave a comment below, telling us about your favorite regional foods. If you don’t have any, tell us what you think that hated food item is that I reference in paragraph 4, above. You don’t have to be right to win, LOL!

 

A Wicked Welcome to Barbara Wallace

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, in Connecticut where the rain is coming in buckets–or at least it was when this post was written…

Today my guest is my friend, Barbara Wallace. If you read romance, you’ll know her as the author of a whole lot of wonderful books. She’s recently dipped her toe into the cozy mystery pool. Here’s what she has to say:

Genre Jumping Isn’t So Easy

I’d written almost twenty romance novels for Harlequin before I decided to tackle my first cozy mystery. The Suburbs Have Secrets was the book of my heart that I longed to write. I’d been in love with mysteries since I was a little girl and discovered my mom’s Agatha Christie novels.

Making the jump from romance to mystery would be easy, I thought. After all, I had the skills needed to craft a solid novel.

  • The ability to create memorable, well-rounded characters? Check.
  • The knack for crafting snappy dialogue? Check
  • The capacity to weave a complex and intriguing puzzle and resolve it in a satisfying fashion?

Ummm, maybe?

When it comes to short contemporary romance, which is what I write for Harlequin, the story focuses on the romantic conflict between the characters. What’s happening on the page is far less important than the emotional tension between the hero and heroine. Be it running from a potential killer or traipsing through the vineyards of Tuscany, “How will they get together?” is the main question.

Mysteries as you know, are a horse of a different color.  You readers don’t just require a plot. You require puzzles that unfold piece by piece, hint by hint. Cozy mystery writers must manage a cast of distinct characters who spend their time on the page dropping clues and red herrings like bread crumbs, and make sure the information doesn’t flow too fast or too slow.

What’s more, they must know what their characters are doing off the page as well.  If Detective Dan Bartlett is investigating Paul Paretsky’s alibi while my protagonist, Sadie McIntyre, is off breaking into a neighbor’s house, I need to know it even if that information never makes the page.

With romance novels, writers can fly by the seat of their pants. Since the characters drive the story, we can drop our hero and heroine into a situation and see what happens. Try that in a mystery novel and you end up with an unreadable pile of mush. I know. I tried it on my first pass.

Fortunately for me, I had a fantastic editor. With her help, and much work, I turned my pile of mush into something I’m truly proud of.

So what’s the lesson here?  Writing cozy mysteries is hard. Oh, and make sure you have a really good (and patient) editor.

The first book in the new Sadie McIntyre Mystery series, The Suburbs Have Secrets, is a combination of Murder She Wrote and Desperate Housewives. Sadie McIntyre is a New England real estate agent with a secret.  When she gives a drunken Marylou Paretsky a ride home one rainy night, she has no idea it will be the last time anyone sees Marylou alive. The following morning, Marylou is found dead at the bottom of her staircase, the victim of foul play. 

Who killed Marylou? Was it her philandering husband? His lover? Or one of the residents Marylou was blackmailing? In a town where everyone has a secret, the list of suspects is endless.

Can Sadie find Marylou’s killer before her own secret becomes public and shoots her to the top of the suspect list? Or will the killer find her first? 

Available now on Amazon.

Bestselling, award-winning author Barbara Wallace specializes in sassy, smart novels known for their emotional depth. Since her debut in 2009, she’s gone on to publish nearly 20 titles with with Harlequin Romance and Entangled Publishing to world-wide popularity. A life-long Yankee, Barbara lives in New England with her husband, their son, two very spoiled self-centered cats (as if there could be any other kind) and a very catered-to rescue pup.

Stirring the Plot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing the cat would stop walking across the keyboard so I can write already...

Hey, Wicked Friends! It’s hard to believe another month has gone by and it’s my turn to do some blabbing on the blog. I hope you all had a lovely September. I think I did–it went by in a blur for me!

Yes, we have a uniform. No, I can’t tell you what MTB stands for. We are sworn to secrecy.

I’ve spoken before about the wonderful retreats I and my writer friends go on several times a year. One of my posse has a gorgeous Vermont ski house that sleeps a dozen people very comfortably–and believe me, when this all-female group is at its largest, those 5 bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms come in handy!

Today I thought I’d tell you about an aspect of these retreats that you writers might be able to apply to your own groups (and I sincerely hope you all have at least one teammate in your dugout, because it is NOT easy going it alone). Our main focus is always our plots–and we always collaborate. But here’s the thing: we write in different genres. And each genre has its own set of expectations. Depending on who can make it to the retreat, we may have writers working on mystery, Amish romance, steamy romance, urban fantasy, paranormal, women’s fiction, young adult, or even middle-grade chapter books.

That’s a pretty big range. So how is it that a mystery writer can help plot a shapeshifter novel?

First, we have all known each other for years, are close friends, trust each other implicitly, and are familiar with each other’s work. So we have an innate sense of what will fly and what will not fly for any particular author. The corollary to this is that we have a tacit agreement that anyone can give any opinion without fear of the recipient taking offense. This is huge. Without this kind of trust and honesty, the group simply doesn’t function. We all understand that we are not there to pat each other on the head and say, “Good job!” (although we give lots of support) We are there to make everyone’s story the best it can be. And sometimes that means tough love.

Second, we respect the process. Our retreats are structured so that we have both group plotting time and personal writing time. We rarely deviate from our routine, because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Our hostess has an MBA, and she keeps us on track if we start to veer off topic. Depending on the size of the group, we have one or two plotting sessions. We sit around her big table, and the writer who is “it” gives us a nutshell version of her story. Sometimes we exchange story premises beforehand, but usually we just wait until we get there, and then listen. The woman at bat may have just a nugget of an idea, or may have most of her plot worked out but needs help ironing out details. She tells us what she needs, and we start firing questions and ideas, which leads to more questions and ideas, and very soon a plot takes shape. It’s frightening, sometimes, how fast it comes together with that many creative brains working in unison. We can usually plot an entire book in a half hour. And then we move to the next.

Third, we all understand the basics of good fiction: compelling characters, a memorable setting, plenty of conflict (both internal and external that moves the story along), a clear goal for every character, which also moves the story, setbacks/failures, a logical and exciting climax, and a resolution that satisfies in some way. These basics cut across genre lines. (Literary fiction is its own thing–but it’s not our thing, LOL!, so I’m leaving that out of this discussion) So if one or more of these element is weak in the story we’re plotting, we can identify it and come up with ways to strengthen it.

And fourth, we understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The questions that the women’s fiction writer asks of the young adult writer are quite often something the YA writer might not have considered. Different perspectives make for fresh, innovative stories. And creative energy feeds on itself. It gets faster, bigger, and badder the more it’s nurtured.

What about you? Do you have a friend or colleague you can be completely honest with, whether you’re a writer or not? Can you take constructive criticism without getting offended? Who are your MTBs?

 

 

It Never Gets Old

Jane/Susannah/Sadie here, enjoying a cool breeze and a hot cup of coffee…

This week I’m ecstatic that my fifth novel, A KNIT BEFORE DYING, is now out into the world. You’d think I’d be less excited this time around, but nope! It’s just as fresh and new and amazing and scary as when FETA ATTRACTION released a couple of years ago. I can say, though, that I think this one is the best, most complicated mystery I’ve ever done. Shhhh! It’s my favorite among my book children, even though we’re not supposed to play favorites, right?

So to celebrate the new book and the approach of autumn, when soft yarnish things and cozy mysteries are exactly what we need to settle ourselves in for the months ahead, I’m giving away two copies of the first book in the series, YARNED AND DANGEROUS. 

Just leave a comment below, telling us either what book(s)you’re reading now (if you’re like me, you have several going at once), or tell me about your pets. Brownie points if you’re reading a book by a Wicked or a Wicked Accomplice, or you own or have owned a tuxedo cat, but neither thing is required, LOL! The giveaway closes at 11:59 p.m., EST, on August 31, 2017. Good luck, and big hugs to all you wonderful writers and readers!

 

The Writing Mascot

Sadie/Susannah/Jane here, wishing I was at the beach…

Hey, Wicked People! Hope you’re all enjoying your summer. I can’t believe it’s half over and I haven’t even been on vacation yet! I am going soon, though, to a lovely lakeside cabin in Vermont for a week. I’ll be leaving my day job (which I love, love, love–seriously!) behind, but I’ll be using part of the time to do some focused writing on a scary project in a new-to-me genre.

Now, I have lots of writer friends (and yes, I know how lucky I am).Some of them use a ritual to get themselves into Writer Mode, like turning on a special type of music, lighting a candle of a particular scent, or simple deep breathing. I’ve never quite found any of these things to be as helpful as just sitting my butt in the chair, rereading and surface editing the work I did the day before (I don’t go back further than that lest I am tempted to go back to the beginning and edit, which would mean I’d just be stuck in an endless loop and never produce any new material). But I know a ritual works for some.

Others have a mascot. My romance writer friend Stefanie London has a stuffed llama. Another romance writer, Regina Kyle, has a toy manatee (named Romanatee, which is the best name ever). And Toni Kelner has Sid the Skeleton. These items have taken on lives of their own, and they are great conversation starters with readers, too, when carried around at conferences.

So, a couple of years ago, I was spending a fun afternoon lunching and shopping with another friend, Kensington author Gail Chianese. We stopped in at an Irish imports store, and I saw an adorable stuffed sheep. I said, “Hey! There it is! My new writing mascot.” I proceeded to buy it. And it has sat on my desk ever since, but even though it’s cute, I never really bonded with it. The unappreciated little girl? guy? doesn’t even have a name.

Now my day job is at a subscription-only publisher of cozy mysteries. And one of the series I work on (the Amish Inn Mysteries, if anyone is interested) features a very, very lazy English bulldog named Beans. At a recent team meeting we were all given a Beans Facsimile. So he also now sits on my desk. I still don’t find him particularly inspirational, maybe because of the aforementioned laziness. But still, I like having him there better than my poor sheep.

Do you have a mascot? A totem? An inspirational ritual? Any crazy thing that gets you motivated to do what you need to do? Also, if anyone wants to suggest a name for Sheep Incognito, I’m all ears.